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‘Winter blues’ may signal seasonal disorder

Eric Sucar
Raindrops illustration.

Staff Writer

Waking up during a cold winter morning can be difficult. The idea of leaving the warm confines of a comfortable bed, at times, can seem paralyzing.

For Jay, a 39-year-old man from Old Bridge, the struggle to get up during the biting chill of winter has a more dire connotation.

“My natural, negative tendencies increase, and I lose all interest in pretty much everything,” Jay said. “My entire life seems pointless, and I have gotten to points where the only thing keeping me from hurting myself is not wanting to hurt my loved ones.”

Jay, who wished to not be identified, lives with major depressive disorder, general anxiety disorder and a mood disorder that compounds those conditions, known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

According to the Mayo Clinic, SAD “is a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons.” Those living with the condition usually experience intense bouts of apathy, fatigue and a number of other symptoms, around the same time each year, mostly at the onset of fall and winter.

The American Academy of Family Physicians estimates that there are anywhere from 4 to 6 percent of Americans currently living with SAD, while “another 10 to 20 percent may experience a mild form of winter-onset SAD.”

According to Dr. Eugene DeRobertis, a psychology professor at Brookdale Community College, SAD amplifies existing forms of depression, rather than acts as its own form.

“It’s not like you have a flu and a cold at the same time, but rather it’s more like your flu symptoms either come out or worsen at the change of the seasons,” DeRobertis said.

Some factors that may increase a person’s risk of being diagnosed with SAD, according to the Mayo Clinic, include a family history of depression and already being depressed. People in their 20s are also susceptible, and women are more likely to be diagnosed, though men are known to have more severe symptoms. Like other mental and mood-related conditions, each instance is unique to the individual.

For Jay, his bouts of SAD generally stretch from November to February.

“[During that time] I just want to crawl up into a ball and ignore reality,” Jay said. “A lot of times when I’m at my worst, I’m in bed with all the lights off and sleeping as much as humanly possible — I don’t feel this stuff when I’m sleeping.”

Psychologists have conducted numerous studies into why the seasons can have an effect on people living with depression. One school of thought, according to DeRobertis, is that SAD deals with the amount of light a person gets, since the winter has much shorter days and less sunlight.

In addition, studies have attempted to link a person’s location with their chances of being diagnosed with SAD, since being further away from the equator means a colder climate and more pronounced winters.

Despite those studies, DeRobertis said the data does not necessarily prove those ideas, since he says psychology is “half data and half theory” that relies on “how you interpret the numbers once they come in.”

“If it was just a latitude thing, there should be a very clear and obvious trend where people at the higher latitudes would be more prone to SAD, while people at the lower latitudes wouldn’t,” DeRobertis said.

For some individuals, like Victoria, 61, of Jackson, part of her SAD experience stemmed from the distance she felt from the people around her during the colder months.

“My feeling is, that when it’s cold, everybody has to wear more clothes and we’re all not looking at each other as much when we’re running around outside in parking lots — there’s just not as much human contact,” Victoria said. “It’s not like when it’s warm — when people, to me, are happier and more connected.”

Victoria, who also wished to not be identified, said her experiences with SAD began when she was a teenager in high school. It wasn’t until many years later when she began seeking treatment for bipolar disorder that she learned what she was feeling was more than just sadness over the end of summer vacation.

“I just kind of lived with it every year because I didn’t know what it was,” Victoria said. “When I experienced [SAD], I could feel it come onto me at about the third week in August every year, and I would feel like a cannonball was shot through my core. I felt hollow.”

It took years for both Jay and Victoria to determine what they were experiencing was SAD because it is so difficult to realize what is happening to them, DeRobertis said.

“It’s normal for people to feel down during the winter, so you usually find people wondering if what they’re going through is really SAD or if it’s just a normal phenomena people go through in life,” DeRobertis said.

For Jay, the realization came too late.

“It wasn’t until the breakup of my first marriage at 28 that I started going to a doctor and therapy and realized that my depression was much worse in the winter.”

Though it took years for both Jay and Victoria to be diagnosed with SAD, both said they tried different treatments with varying effects.

A common method of treatment for SAD is the use of artificial sunlight. Since many psychologists and psychiatrists believe that SAD is brought on by the diminishing amount of sunlight during winter, many people try artificial sunlight therapy to bask in an artificial sun’s rays through the use of special light fixtures.

While that particular method of treatment has mixed levels of success with some individuals, Jay said only prescribed medications like anti-depressants have helped him cope with his symptoms.

“The medication lessens the symptoms, but it doesn’t make them go away,” Jay said. “Instead of being depressed and not being able to get out of bed for a month or two, I can’t get out of bed for a day or two.”

Though Victoria said light treatment provided some “mild improvement” with her SAD, it was a mixture of anti-depressants, therapy and regular activity that proved to be more effective in the long term.

Today, Victoria says she no longer suffers from SAD.

“It was a wonderful feeling when I realized one winter that I didn’t get that empty feeling,” Victoria said.

Both Jay and Victoria said their regular attendance at local chapters of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) improved their outlook on life with depression.

According to Maureen Falkowitz, who serves as the president of the Jackson and Colts Neck branches of New Jersey DBSA, Jay and Victoria are prime examples of the benefits that local support groups can have for the clinically depressed.

“[The DBSA] is an added support for these people because some of them might not even have a support system,” Falkowitz said. “They may not have family around or they may not have friends. We’ve seen it happen where once a person is diagnosed, their friends just leave.”

Falkowitz said there have been many cases where just the stigma of being diagnosed with depression has led to difficulties in a person’s life.

“We have a mission to try to help people who suffer from depression and bipolar disorder or any other mental health difficulties,” Falkowitz said. “Anybody is welcome and our goal is to try to help them live their lives more successfully.”

Though he acknowledges that he will continue to have difficult days ahead of him for the rest of his life, Jay said getting that type of support added a little bit of light to the darker days.

“It helps to know that there are other people who get the same symptoms as me,” Jay said. “I’m not alone in this.”

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